The following is an adapted excerpt from Jennifer Sey’s upcoming new book, “Levi’s Unbuttoned”:
I worked at Levi’s longer than I’ve ever done anything in my entire life. I’ve been a mom, thus far, for 22 years. By halfway through my tenure at the company, I was sure I’d retire from the place, sent off with a big party complete with balloons and a cake. That didn’t happen. Instead, I walked out the virtual door, with an uncertain future but with a clear sense of purpose.
When I started at Levi’s, the place was riddled with soft, and less soft, sexism; men who were jerks just because they could be.
Most of both the everyday mortifications and the obstacles to career advancement that I endured during my time at Levi’s directly related to my being a woman. These incidents – some minor, some not – are by no means the unique purview of Levi’s. And I’m not whining, only pointing out that the wind was very much in my face, not at my back, in my career trek at the company.
Do I wish I knew, as young women do now, that “no” should always be an option? By “no” I mean: no, you can’t treat me that way; no, you can’t ask me to take on a larger scope, call it a promotion but not give me a pay increase; no, I don’t accept that bit of feedback that contradicts what you said last week; no, I’m not too quiet, too loud, too fast for people to follow what I’m saying, too this too that too everything too nothing at all.
Yes. I wish I knew that this was possible, as many young women do now. Though I don’t think things would have gone that well for me. It wasn’t acceptable then, and I don’t think that I would have progressed in my career. So, for many years I simply held my tongue and kept going. It took me until exactly 51 years of age to stand firm in saying: This is who I am. This is what I believe. Deal with it.
Here's a taste of what life was like in corporate America, not so long ago. Which, looking back, might also be taken as a testament to how some things have actually changed for the better.
When I returned from my first maternity leave in 2001, I was still nursing. There weren’t “mother’s rooms” at the time. I had to pump milk in an unlocked closet with my back against the door to prevent intruders looking for product samples and promotional materials from barging in.
Also back in 2001, there was one top executive whose sole way of relating to women, especially young ones, was flirtation. I refused, keeping my head down, avoiding eye contact and sending strong signals that I did not want to be bothered. But it was those women who engaged with this executive who got promoted.
Hardly incidentally, this same guy later came under internal investigation for an incident at a sales meeting. He was one of three senior male executives seen late at night, in the pool, with three topless entry-level female employees atop their shoulders, engaged in chicken fights, wherein the goal is to knock down the other shoulder riders. The incident became known internally as the “naked chicken fights.” For women at Levi’s 20 years ago, the batting away of drunken advances was a routine part of sales meetings and sometimes even of office life.
Beyond the everyday mortifications, I was repeatedly prevented from advancing in my career by a whole host of men who felt confident that they knew what I was, or – more accurately – wasn’t, capable of.
When I was the U.S. Marketing Director, the Brand President, who was leaving the company, took it upon himself to give me some advice before he departed.
“Do you want to know what people really think of you?” he said after inviting me into his office.
I hadn’t asked this question, so no. He continued.
“They don’t think you’re a leader. They don’t think you’re creative. They don’t think you have any vision. You get stuff done but you’ll never lead anything. You’ll never be a Chief Marketing Officer.”
I think I was supposed to thank him for setting me straight, lest I have any aspirations which were not to be realized. I didn’t. Instead, I decided to speak:
“That seems not totally fair. I pursue creative endeavors outside of work. I’ve made two short films. At work, I’ve led successful ad campaigns.”
He was unconvinced.
“I’m just trying to be helpful. It’s good to know where you stand.”
I asked him if that was all, and then I left.
Yet another Brand President decided a few years later that he needed to have a similar heart to heart talk with me, just in case I still had any delusions of grandeur.
“You’ll never be a CMO here or anywhere else.”
Why did all these men think they needed to break it to me that I was at the end of my career road?
When I was finally promoted to Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at Levi’s in 2013 and dared to ask what the increased compensation would be, I was told “zero.” The head of Human Resources said: "You’re getting the best job in the company. Just be grateful.” I pushed and pushed and was repeatedly met with the same response:
“Why are you asking these questions? It’s a great job. Very high profile!”
I responded with: “Would you accept a job without understanding the benefits and compensation?”
“No. But that’s different,” he said.
Yeah, it was different. He was a man. And I wasn’t. I took the job. I had no choice, really.
After having performed for several years in the CMO role that I was told I’d never be capable of, I was told by the CEO, who always claimed to have faith in my abilities, that I was in line for a Brand President role if one were to open. It would be leading one of the smaller businesses, but a step up to a general manager role that came with a seat on the executive team. When that day came because the President of Dockers left the company, I was giddy. H.R. reached out to say I was indeed first in line.
But when I was on vacation visiting family in New York, pregnant with my fourth child, the CEO made the decision that the job would not go to me. I learned this in a companywide email announcement, which I read in the back seat of a taxi. I was not even given the courtesy of a one-on-one conversation to break the news. The announcement said that the new Brand President of Dockers was in fact the current Brand President of Levi’s. His scope would double, and I would be staying put.
People get passed over all the time. But the fact that I was told it was mine, and then no one even bothered to tell me it wasn’t before making the internal announcement, is what really hit me hard. I sobbed for a week not because I didn’t get the job, but because I felt like such a sucker for believing that I would. Then I dusted myself off and got back to CMO-ing. Two years later I was named by Forbes as one of the 50 Most Influential CMO’s in the world. And then again the year after that.
In 2019, I attended a business/social affair hosted by the San Francisco 49ers. At the main event, a dinner, I was seated next to the president of the team.
There were about 30 couples at the event. There was no easy way to decipher who was the invitee – the corporate executive – and who was the plus one. At some point during dinner, my husband, decided to ask our host.
“So, who here is the executive and who’s the spouse? How many women are the actual executives?” he queried.
As it turned out, I was the only one. All the rest of the women there were the spouses. My husband was stunned, but I wasn’t surprised in the least. My husband simply couldn’t believe, in 2019, that men represented 96.67 percent of the executives present. He started to rant. I shushed him.
It’s no wonder that all those men felt justified in telling me that I would never be a CMO. I was the only female executive at the table at this event. One must ask though: was I the only one because we were all persistently told we weren’t capable? Or did the men assume we weren’t capable because they saw no other women in these roles?
If only I had a dollar for every time that I was told that I didn’t speak up enough, or I spoke up too much, or I talked too fast, or I wasn’t analytical enough, or I wasn’t creative enough, or I was too “values led” which made me naïve to the ways of running a profitable business, well I wouldn’t need to worry about how I was going to make a living going forward. I think all this often-conflicting feedback was never the starting point. The starting point was – you’re a woman. What you are, isn’t what we need. Then they back into the why.
How much did my being a woman have to do with the fact that I was pushed out my job for being outspoken about long-term school closures? Might my outspokenness on the matter have been more palatable if I were a man? There’s no way of knowing. But it’s certainly more than possible.
Men are allowed to speak their minds. Women are expected to be nice and do as they are told.
In spite of the many obstacles that I faced at work over the years, I kept going. And ultimately, after starting as an entry level marketing assistant twenty years earlier, I became the President of the Levi’s brand.
And no matter how unfortunate the ending, I will always be proud of the work that I did.